Bloggers and campaigners to be gagged by lobbying bill

By Adam Bienkov

Bloggers and campaigners could be issued with "stop notices" in the run up to the next election if the government's new lobbying bill is passed, MPs were warned today.

The chair of the Electoral Commission said that regulators could be forced to take legal action against community groups and activists due to confusion over their new role.

"There may be circumstances where a stop notice might be argued to be needed in cases of, for example, asking somebody to take down a blog or a website or prevent a rally from happening," commission chair Jenny Watson told the constiturional reform committee.

"That is a significant intervention for the electoral commission to take."

She said that the bill risked infringing "fundamental issues of free expression" if it is not amended.

The government's lobbying bill has been criticised by bloggers and campaigners from right across the political spectrum.

A major alliance of voluntary organisations also warned that the bill would have a "chilling effect" on charities.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations released legal advice from a senior human rights lawyer warning that the bill could lead to some charities being prosecuted.

"This bill takes us from a situation in which charities and community groups largely understood the rules on what they could do, into a position where no one has any idea what the rules are, but may nevertheless face criminal prosecution for getting them wrong," NCVQ director Karl Wilding said today.

Labour accused the government of trying to silence their opponents.

"This is a sop to powerful vested interests, a sinister gag on democratic debate in the run up to the general election and a shameful abuse of the legislative process to make cheap partisan points," said shadow leader of the house Angela Eagle.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas warned that the bill could prevent people campaigning against far-right parties.

“Some of the potential implications of this are frankly terrifying.  Perhaps most worryingly, the power to stand up against racist or extremist parties could be curtailed," she said.

"So we'd have the perverse situation where the BNP, which as a political party would be exempt from these rules, would be protected, whereas those campaigning against them could be severely restricted.

The leader of the House Andrew Lansley today denied that the government was seeking to silence charities and campaigners and said they should "not be alarmed" by the bill.

He said the legislation was needed in order to stop third parties from trying to swing elections and said that he was "content" that no freedoms would be infringed.

"In our view the idea that this would have any chilling effect on charities is neither contemplated by us nor the consequence of what we're proposing," he added.

"Charities by definition should not be engaging in directly party political activity, so pretty much by definition they should not be engaging in expenditure which would be defined as for electoral purposes, so pretty much by definition they should be free to engage in the campaigning they want to undertake and I'm perfectly content and we're happy for that to be the case."